“One day I woke up and realized I didn’t have a life.”
That’s how neuroscientist Wendy Suzuki begins her new book, Healthy Brain, Happy Life. Then, with the help of writer Billie Fitzpatrick, she lets us in on her transformation: from a world-renowned scientist who — underneath the prestige — feels socially awkward, overweight, and in a slump, to a scientist who uses her own research to boost her mind, body, and everyday life.
The book shines in large part because Suzuki combines her personal story with scientific studies and observations, giving us a fascinating case study backed up by rigorous research.
Suzuki describes herself as a “geeky girl” in her youth, one who decides by the eighth grade that she wants a career as a scientist. As she grows, she finds success in neuroscience. But as her work gets exciting, she realizes that her academic drive has cut into her ability to become a well-rounded adult. She has a dream career, she writes, with tenure, respect from her peers around the world, and more and more freedom in her research. But underneath that, not much else.
Her love for good food and restaurants has made Suzuki overweight. She is is also largely alone, without a strong social community — and she is plenty stressed. So she motivates herself to go to the gym and work with a trainer. And then, as she learns how to get healthier, she begins to see that strenuous exercise makes her feel much better.
As a scientist, Suzuki wants to know more.
So she starts to research how physical exercise, meditation, and other healthful pursuits can help our brain perform more effectively. There are already studies on how physical exercise can help people feel better, but Suzuki wants additional proof. She runs tests on rats and other animals. Then she takes a bigger risk: She develops a class that will use students as research subjects — in a rather unconventional way. Each class, Suzuki leads her students in a strenuous workout called IntenSati, something she trained in at the gym. The name is a combination of “inten,” from intensity, and “sati,” an Eastern Indian term meaning awareness or mindfulness. IntenSati combines physical exercise from kickboxing, yoga, martial arts, and dance with the shouting of positive affirmations.
The students like the workouts, and report changes in their outlook. Suzuki also conducts pre-tests and post-tests of her students and creates a control group to measure impact and establish scientific credibility. She mixes in meditation and yoga techniques, too, adding another dimension.
Again, the class responds with enthusiasm — and, more important, Suzuki sees that their activities have an impact on their brain function.
Meanwhile, Suzuki works on her own life. She works to develop more personal relationships. She strengthens her bond with her parents. And she eats better without giving up her love for exploring new restaurants. There is, we learn, a happy ending to all of it.
This is an entertaining, helpful, and scientifically grounded read. To be fair, I think Suzuki owes some of her transformation to the natural maturing process. But her research is quite compelling, as is her number one case study: herself.
Healthy Brain, Happy Life: A Personal Program to Activate Your Brain and Do Everything Better
Harper Collins, May 2015
Hardcover, 320 pages